Bellus Magazine (BM): How did you transition from being a correspondent on ET Canada to being on the other side of the camera?
Olivia Cheng (OC): I’d just quit my full time job as a news reporter to film AMC’s Broken Trail mini-series. After it was done, I kicked around for a couple of months unsure of what to do next. Go back to local news? Pursue acting? My Broken Trail cast mate, Jadyn Wong, invited me to Vancouver to crash with her and look for an agent there, and while I was in Vancouver I e-mailed ET Canada looking for work. I was testing the waters because I hadn’t made the mental leap yet to give acting a full kick at the can. ET Canada hired me right away and I also found an acting agent whom I really connected with and trusted. I packed everything I could into my car and moved to Vancouver. I didn’t even say a proper goodbye to a lot of people in Edmonton, I was so excited I just bounced.
My first year in Vancouver I worked for ET Canada whenever they called, and did a part-time gig as a news reporter. It was a great set up but keeping my ties to media wasn’t working well with acting classes and auditions. I had to make a choice so I fully left corporate media and threw everything I had into figuring out what it meant to be an actor. The next seven years were full of great adventure as well as struggle on every level. I had raw talent and a genuine love for the craft but I had no idea who I really was beyond who I was expected to be. I didn’t have the life experience yet to authentically interpret a lot of my audition material and I struggled as an artist to crack the code. I also couldn’t say a line without sounding like a news reporter and it took me a long time to break that cadence reporters are so famous for. On a pragmatic level, I didn’t know how I’d make rent most of the time and was let go from every restaurant job I held. Every Christmas when my parents bought my plane ticket home because I was broke, I’d see my old friends buying houses and settling into really comfortable lives.
I longed for the security of my previous media career at times, but I love acting, and I don’t regret how the hard times have shaped who I’ve become. I came really close to quitting though when my nephew was born. I remember holding him in my arms so in love thinking, “If something happened to everyone else in our family, I couldn’t take care of you.” My dreams seemed frivolous. My debts seemed insurmountable. I felt like I’d be a better aunt if I had a more stable financial life to help my nephew along in his future so I quit acting class. I started looking for full time work in media again. I called my agent to tell her I was taking steps to leave the industry. But when I realized I was grieving my decision, like truly grieving like I’d lost someone close to me, I imagined my baby nephew feeling like I was 20 years from that moment, maybe thinking he couldn’t do something he wanted to do and having no one he could relate to who’d endured the uncertainty. That changed my perspective about giving up because maybe it wasn’t just my own dream I’d be impacting but his as well.
So I dug deep and started calling every friend I had in town. I was super honest about my situation, and very frank in asking for opportunities to support myself. I was basically asking people to believe in me and invest in me. I put my media skills to work. I built websites for people, wrote ghost copy for publicists, babysat producers’ kids, worked as a personal assistant running errands, and worked as a field producer doing behind-the-scenes interviews for the shows in town. I also a ran social media account for my teacher, Ben Ratner, in exchange for scene study classes and started producing an improv class for my other teacher, Veena Sood. I hustled hard, stayed in class, and rode out the long drought in booking. By the end of the year when auditions started picking up for me again, I think I’d grown so much as a person that I started interpreting audition material in a different way. I finally understood how to put my emotional life into my work. I started booking consistently and all the casting directors in town started advocating for me in a way I hadn’t experienced before as I got to a level of competing internationally.
In short, I transitioned from one side of the red carpet to the other through a lot of hard work, a lot of failure, a humble pie’s worth of personal growth, and a lot of help from my family, friends and colleagues in the Vancouver community. I think that’s so key for artists, you’ve got to find your tribe, you’ve got to find the people who’ve truly got your back through the hard times and celebrate your wins with you.
BM: Has acting always been a big passion of yours?
OC: Looking back I can say yes. The signs were all there. I produced plays during recess in elementary school and would ask for special permission to hand in junior high and high school assignments as filmed movies or plays. I worked at a theatre concession one summer because I wanted to watch free movies and my favourite thing to do was rent five movies at a time with my brother to binge watch all of them in one sitting. This was pre-Netflix of course! When I got older, I worked as an extra on films that came to Alberta and sometimes I got a few lines here or there. I just loved being on set. I loved it. I thought it was the coolest, and I thought everyone there was the coolest from the craft services lady to the actors themselves. I never thought it could be a real career for me though until Walter Hill and Robert Duvall cast me in AMC’s Broken Trail. That forced me to look through my fears about “How do I do this?” and begin owning the passion I had for acting. Once you’re no longer in denial about what you really want, you either do something about it or you live with the regret of having never really tried.
BM: Tell us about your new upcoming Netflix series “Marco Polo” and your character for the show, Mei Lin
OC: Our show “Marco Polo” is a take on what the real life Marco Polo experienced upon landing in Kublai Khan’s Mongolian court in the middle of a war with China’s Song Dynasty. Our writers draw on Marco Polo’s own stories as source material, and what excites me so much about this show is it’s essentially the first Asian historical epic done entirely in English! That’s huge. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more said about what a diversity milestone our show is. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to do a historical epic as a North American actor of Chinese ethnicity. And I’m so excited for Asian actors around the world to have a shot at coming on our show. I’m digressing— in terms of the world of our show, it’s brutally Machiavellian. Every character schemes to survive in a world with inconsistent morals, life or death stakes and fragile alliances. Yet there are moments of levity too, and the storylines are anchored in the family ties and relationships of our characters. I think of the Khan like the Mongolian Tony Soprano trying to keep his crew on top. No matter the context, we can all relate to universal themes of fighting for family, love and power.
As for my character, Mei Lin, she’s based on a real imperial concubine who got her brother into the Song court. He rose to become Chancellor Jia Si Dao (played by my #brothafromanothamotha Chin Han on our show), and he went down in history as an incredibly corrupt official who arguably destroyed the Song Dynasty with his decisions. His sister became a foot note in Chinese history, but her existence captured the imagination of our show creator, John Fusco, and he created Mei Lin as a nod to who this woman may have been. On our show, Mei Lin goes from being an esteemed imperial concubine, to being blackmailed into infiltrating the Mongolian court, to fighting for her life as a prisoner of war. She’s such a ferocious yet vulnerable character because to be a woman in her time is to survive a world where women are chattel and toys for the elite. I learned a lot about the history and heartbreaking intricacies of what it meant to be a concubine or courtesan. These women were both revered and reviled by society. Their value was in their objectified beauty and ability to maintain their masks as living works of art. These girls and women had no legal rights, had children taken from them by first wives, could be abused and murdered with absolutely no consequence, and were traded to the enemy in times of war to prevent mass slaughter. Some managed to influence the politics of their time though and our Mei Lin represents the few who rose to positions of precarious power. I think the concubine is a very misunderstood figure that’s wielded as a hurtful stereotype at times, and it still affects how Asian women are perceived today.
BM: Here at Bellus magazine we find the beauty in all art forms, how do you define beauty?
I love this question. I actually have the Chinese character for beauty tattooed on my ankle, and if you combine it with another character, the two together mean art. I debated getting both characters tattooed but after “beauty” was done I screamed Uncle and called it a day.
I know beauty can be defined in aesthetic terms, but I tend to think about beauty as it relates to a person’s character. Are they kind? Are they accountable and forgiving? Are they gracious in the face of hardship? I think defining beauty as a standard of internal character is important in this day and age where we’re so bombarded by a hamster wheel of advertisers overusing the word to sell, sell, sell products that make you question your own innate beauty in the first place.